One thing I've always appreciated about the films of John Carney is their modesty. He makes small, unpretentious pictures about everyday characters whose lives are enriched by the power of music. Not only do the folks who populate Carney's movies not achieve fame and fortune, but most of them never even dream about it. Still, I was a bit apprehensive when I learned the premise of the latest from the writer/director of Once (2007), Begin Again (2014), and Sing Street (2016).
The story centers on Flora, played by Eve Hewson (This Must Be the Place, Bridge of Spies, and the Steven Soderbergh TV series The Knick). Flora is a single mum barely coexisting in a Dublin flat with her sullen son Max (Orén Kinlan), a rebellious teenager and petty thief. Encouraged by the police to find a hobby for Max before he ends up in reform school, Flora rescues an old guitar from a dumpster and offers it to her son. When Max rejects the gift, Flora signs up for online lessons herself, striking up a friendship with a Los Angeles-based guitar teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Reading that logline, one's head is filled with visions of saccharine scenes in which a feuding mother and son learn to communicate through a shared love of music, the new-age washed-up guitar teacher getting Flora to expand her horizons, and a climactic musical number with them all somehow on stage somewhere.
Those are not incorrect assumptions about what Flora and Son has to offer, except that the film is not in the least bit cloying. We know we're in good hands when we first meet Flora. As embodied by Hewson, she's a vibrant, foul-mouthed, goodtime girl who's a bit pissed that she got knocked up and married so young. She regrets denying herself a freewheeling youth, therefore trying to recapture one by clubbing, drinking, and cruising guys. She's not bitter, and she's not a bad mother, but she's honest enough to admit to her girlfriend that she sometimes fantasizes that her son would be one of those kids who just goes missing one day. She knows there must be more to life than cohabitating in a crappy apartment with a kid who doesn't seem to like her and schlepping him over for visits with his dad, whom she still fancies.
Carney's narratives are hardly original, but the language of his characters makes the pictures sing. And because these characters literally sing, the movies possess many structural and emotional qualities of the musical genre without being full-fledged musicals themselves. No one in a John Carney picture bursts into song with a full orchestra backing them up to express their inner thoughts and feelings, but they organically find themselves singing things to each other that they'd probably never say in conversation. Thus, these pictures tap into something primal, like musicals, while remaining grounded in reality. In fact, due to the region and class of the protagonists in most of Carney's films, they're grounded in an almost kitchen-sink drama reality. It's hard to think of two more disparate film styles than kitchen-sink drama and musical, so blending elements from both is distinctive. Even though the stories don't offer anything incredibly fresh or innovative, we enjoy spending time with these characters. We identify with their situations and may even find ourselves returning to these feel-good movies.
My one issue with Flora and Son concerns its depiction of how people create music together over Zoom or other internet applications. This is a significant aspect of the movie, as the romantic element between Flora and Jeff occurs over Zoom with her in Dublin and him in LA. Any musician who lived through the COVID-19 lockdown knows the frustration of video conferencing time-lag. Software engineers have not yet perfected a way for people in different areas to sing together in real-time. However, musical folks worldwide figured out all kinds of creative ways to sing together during the pandemic. I wish Carney had honored this creativity rather than asking us to suspend our disbelief and accept that in the movie's world, people can sing together through their Zoom interface without the problems of time lag. The choice seems unnecessary since the picture uses the musical conceit of characters separated by long distances, imagining they are in the same space when they are singing together. So there's no reason for the film not to wait until these more fanciful, dreamlike moments to have them start singing in unison. Of course, taking this route would complicate the big climax a bit, but I can think of plenty of ways Joseph Gordon-Levitt could have been brought into the final number without pretending that what's depicted in this climax could happen as it does.
Quibbles aside, I was charmed by Flora and Son.I even found Gordon-Levitt, an actor I've never cared for, endearing as a character in the early stage of middle age. And Hewson makes Flora's carnal (some might even say shallow) motivations for learning the guitar feel downright honorable. What makes Flora such a winning character is that, in a fanciful film that follows well-established beats and tropes, she comes across less like a female protagonist of a romantic movie and more like someone you might actually meet in a bar. I'll certainly be watching out for what both Hewson and Craney do next.